January 22nd nearly came and went without me marking the birthday of my favorite author, Texan Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan The Barbarian, Solomon Kane, King Kull, and others.
As always, I feel the best way to honor the man is to read his words. This year, I present a selection from The Grey God Passes, Howard’s rendition of the Battle of Clontarf.
“My Lord,” said Conn, fingering the great copper ring around his neck, “I have slain the man who put this thrall-mark on me. I would be free of it.”
Black Turlough took his red stained ax-head in his hands and, pressing it against the ring, drove the keen edge through the softer metal. The keen edge gashed Conn’s shoulder, but neither heeded.
“Now I am truly free,” said Conn, flexing his mighty arms. “My heart is heavy for the chiefs who have fallen, but my mind is mazed with wonder and glory. Will ever such a battle be fought again? Truly it was a feast of ravens, a sea of slaughter….”
His voice trailed off, and he stood like a statue, head flung back, eyes staring into the clouded heavens. The sun was sinking in a dark ocean of scarlet. Great clouds rolled and tumbled, piled mountainously against the smoldering red of the sunset. A wind blew out of them, biting, cold, and borne on the wind, etched shadowy against the clouds, a vague, gigantic form went flying, beard and wild locks streaming in the gale, cloak billowing out like great wings – speeding into the mysterious blue mists that pulsed and shimmered in the brooding North.
“Look up there – in the sky!” cried Conn. “The grey man! It is he! The grey man with the single terrible eye. I saw him in the mountains of Torka. I glimpsed him brooding on the walls of Dublin while the battle raged. I saw him looming above Prince Murrogh as he died. Look! He rides the wind and races the tall clouds. He swindles. He fades into the void. He vanishes!”
“It is Odin, god of the sea-people,” said Turlogh somberly. “His children are broken, his altars crumble, and his worshipers fallen before the swords of the South. He flees the new gods and their children, and returns to the blue gulfs of the North which gave him birth. No more will helpless victims howl beneath the daggers of his priests – no more will he stalk the black clouds.” He shook his head darkly. “The Grey God passes, and we too are passing, though we have conquered. The days of the twilight come on amain, and a strange feeling is upon me as of a waning age. What are we all, too, but ghosts waning into the night?”
And he went on into the dusk, leaving Conn to his freedom – from thralldom and cruelty, as both he and all the Gaels were now free of the shadow of the Grey God and his ruthless worshipers.